The American Dream?
Ragtime, a musical epitomising the trials and tribulations of achieving the American Dream, is based on the eponymous 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow, which was adapted by Terrence McNally, with the music by Stephen Flaherty and Lyrics by Lynn Aherns and first performed as a stage musical in 1996. Using Ragtime music as a hook to enter the lives of different groups of Americans, it is a celebration of the great American myth that if you work hard, you can achieve whatever you want and be whoever you want to be.
Set during the early years of the last century, Ragtime views America through the experiences of stereotypical groups of Americans, personified by individual characters. Rob Archibald is Tateh who represents the newly arrived Jewish Eastern European immigrants, Chloe Faine is Mother, who symbolises wealthy upper class white Americans, as such she is paternalistic to the poor, African Americans, and anyone else she deems beneath her. She also represents the rich white woman in her gilded cage, who for most of her life and her marriage, is dependent on her husband and lacks self-determination. Coalhouse Walker Jr is an African American man who is a talented jazz pianist, full of hope and ambition and promiscuity. He gets a young African American woman, Sarah, pregnant, whom he abandons. Sarah, played by Sara Rajeswaran in turn abandons her baby in the shrubbery of Mother’s garden. Poor, black and powerless, she is the opposite of Mother; unable to fend for herself or do anything, except wait for her man and stand by her man. Sarah is drawn as a exaggerated, sentimentalised Dickens’ heroine. Andre Overin plays Mother’s husband, Father, an entitled upper class rich white American who is keen on maintaining the status quo and is determined not to look too closely at or question anything which might disturb it. Little Boy played by Evan Huntley-Robertson is the son of the rich white family; he is mischievous, innocent, sweet and kind.
Following a series of racist abuse and attacks Coalhouse Walker Jnr, rather naively, seeks redress and attempts to bring the perpetrators to justice by complaining to various authorities. Even though this is set in New York, unsurprisingly, during a period when racism is endemic in America, nothing is done. Coalhouse Walker Jnr’s frustration is compounded by a terrible tragedy which radicalises him into a very angry black man. He becomes a terrorist who commits acts of arson and murder, aimed at the institutions and people who wronged him. I found it incredible that a black man, in a society which is inherently racist, would have any faith that he could obtain justice from a racist system. His extremist actions turn him into the monster of white society’s worse nightmares. Is it likely that he would jeopardise his life and his baby’s life, even if he is driven mad by America’s legalised racism?
I enjoyed the intelligent use of real life historical figures interweaving with the stories of fictional characters. Chris Nelson is Booker T Washington, an acceptable erudite African American man who had been born into slavery. He called for a conservative approach to overcoming racism and uplifting African Americans, through education and the creation of black businesses, he was against direct action and advised several US presidents. Coalhouse admires and follows Booker T Washington. Deborah Lean provided much needed light relief, as the real life Evelyn Nesbit, whose abusive husband shot her former lover dead and was found not guilty of murder, due to temporary insanity. Nesbit, who was a celebrity model, actor and dancer, is depicted as an astute fun loving independent woman, who exploits the notoriety of her husband’s criminal trial to further her career. This is illustrated in her rendition of “Crime of the Century,” it is great fun and reminds me of Chicago the musical. In “Crime of the Century” Nesbit relates her life story and her testimony in defence of her husband, with comical references to a red velvet swing, which was one of her husband’s peccadilloes. If this were written today, it would probably deal with Stanford White’s real life sexual assault and exploitation of Nesbit as a minor and her husband’s controlling behaviour and domestic abuse. As an upbeat musical it focuses on Nesbit surviving and thriving, rather than Nesbit as a victim.
The story of the struggles and varying successes of Jewish Eastern European immigrants, is told through Archibald’s lovely tenor voice as Tateh, leading a lively rendition of “A Shtetl Iz Amereke/Success” with interjections from Daryl Armstrong as the real life escapologist Houdini and Zo Pisera as the real life anarchist, feminist, political activist and trade unionist Emma Goldman, to whom it is alleged the real life Nesbit bequeathed a substantial sum of money. Some of the lyrics have echoes of West Side Story’s “America”. Tateh emigrated with his daughter to seek a better life but is greeted by the horrors of starvation and squalor in the tenement slums of New York. The lyrics are clever with sharp edged humour.
Mother is the white saviour who rescues both Sarah and her baby from the respective institutions of jail and orphanage, taking them into her home despite wondering “What Kind of Woman” abandons her baby and what kind of woman she is herself, for taking in Sarah and her baby. The lyrics cleverly contrast their lives, which Faine sings in her delightful soprano voice.
Other standout performances are Jonathon Grant as Coalhouse Walker Jr, whose strong clear tenor voice, is shown off in “Sarah Brown Eyes” and “Wheels of a Dream” a lovely duet with Rajeswaran’s vocals providing hints of fragility.
There is so much fun in the song and dance number “His Name Was Coalhouse Walker/The Getting Ready Rag” led by Grant’s Coalhouse, joined by the Harlem Ensemble; it is joyful and hopeful. They all have gorgeous and strong voices. Rajeswaran’s rendition of “Your Daddy’s Son” is poignant. “New Music” is a stirring anthem, brilliantly performed by Father, Mother, Younger Brother, Coalhouse, Sarah and the Company. More laughs come in the form of “What a Game” a number in which Father attempts to bond with his son by taking him to a baseball company; it is comical and witty.
The operatic musical style of Ragtime is reminiscent of Gershwin or Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, set to Ragtime music. The lyrics are punching, moving, funny and smart. The Company all have fabulous voices, they are wonderfully talented, playing multiple roles in a variety of crowd/ensemble scenes and numbers. From the opening number “Prologue: Ragtime” through to the car factory in “Henry Ford, ” to “The Night that Goldman Spoke at Union Square” and to the promise and dreams in “Atlantic City” it was wonderful to be immersed in their world and surrounded by their harmonious voices. The intimacy of the stage allows you to feel like you are part of the musical. In some ways Ragtime is a feel good musical, but there are plenty of authentic feel bad moments, particularly for the poor folk.
All photos by Dancers of London
Ragtime The Musical is at Bridewell Theatre until 23 November 2019. http://www.sedos.co.uk